Success and Shifting Expectations

I was looking at my sales numbers this morning and projecting what I was going to gross for the month as well as net. And I felt depressed by the numbers. Because this time of year my ad costs go up compared to my sales. So I was looking at grossing more than I ever have before but netting less than I did in September or October. And maybe even August.

But then I had to take a step back and give myself a reality check. Because where I am right now, on the 13th of December, for both gross and net is more than last December. I’m not even halfway through the month and I’m past where I was a year ago. That means I’m very likely going to double what I was earning this time a year ago and most likely triple those numbers.

That’s really hard to keep in perspective. Every single time I level up I seem to forget how hard it was to get to where I am now. I remember wanting and wanting and wanting my first $1,000 month. (Gross not net.) I came close a few times in the year before it happened–hitting in the $800’s–but I just could not break through that level. For years. I was in my fourth year of self-publishing before I broke through that level.

And, knock wood, haven’t gone below it since.

But now if I had a $1,000 month I’d be bummed. I’d wonder what on earth I had done wrong to slip that far. Each time you hit a new level, your expectations shift. At least mine do. That’s what keeps me moving forward.

But that makes it hard, too. Because you can never stay satisfied with where you are. And, of course, in indie land there are always people doing better with apparently no effort. “Oh I just write my books and throw them out there and they earn me six-figures a year. Isn’t that what it’s like for everyone?” (No. No it is not.)

Which is why I appreciated something I saw on KKR’s blog this morning. She said:

“A lot of you have told me lately that you’re “failures” even though your books are selling. They might only be selling one copy a week or they might be selling dozens of copies per day. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll find someone who you believe is doing better than you are…

That’s why I wrote today’s blog. Because I want you to celebrate each sale, each reader. Those sales are important. Someone liked your work enough to spend money on it. Be happy about that.

 

And it’s true. Sometimes we need to just take a moment and embrace the fact that we wrote something, put it out there, and other people bought it. Heck, they even liked it. Having that happen once is amazing. Having it happen hundreds of times? Thousands of times? That’s…there are no words if you really stop to think about it. (I’m high enough in Self-Assurance that I expect that to happen, but really, truly? It’s almost a miracle. If miracles are made from sweat, tears, and blood.)

Which is all to say: embrace every milestone. You may never be satisfied with where you are (I probably won’t be), but force yourself to stop every once in a while and appreciate how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished.

AMS Ads Revisited

I should be writing (as always), but I only have half an hour until the pup needs fed so I figured it was a good time to revisit AMS ads.

For me they’re still profitable and the bulk of my advertising.

My same basic strategy remains the same: one sponsored product ad per book with strong bids. Not ridiculous bids, but not 20 cents a click either.

This being December my ad spend has been climbing fast. Last month was higher as well. But my overall sales are not climbing. I’m still profitable but not as profitable as I would’ve been with that same ad spend in September. It’s just that time of year when you spend more for less visibility.

It’s also because I turned back on ads for some of my books where I’d had the ads turned off due to mediocre performance. I killed those ads again a couple days ago because the lesson is the same each time: Ads work better on books people want.

Every time I get billed for AMS ads I check my ad performance. I look at what I spent on ads for that time period and compare it to what I earned on those books during the same time period. Since I get billed weekly due to my ad spend, this is really the only time I worry about ad performance. I never bother with ACoS or any of the flawed data on the dashboard. (Since moving to KDP Print I have to wait a few days after the invoice date for all print sales to be reported on the KDP dashboard, but that’s the only change I’ve made recently.)

What I find is that the same five or six ads perform very well each time while the rest are basically breakeven. Those breakeven ads stay in a range of losing me $5 to making me $5 for the time period and rarely move outside of it.

I will on rare occasions have an ad that goes more than $5 negative on me, but usually it’s just one ad. When that happens I decide whether to pause it, adjust its keywords, or adjust its bids. The ads that do that are usually for the same small handful of books.

At the end of the day ad performance comes back to the book being advertised. Books people want to buy are more profitable to advertise than books they don’t. Changing keywords or bids or ad copy helps some, especially if you haven’t aligned your ad copy with your blurb and your cover, but it’s mostly about the book and whether it looks like what people want.

What I’ve found far more successful is changing a book’s title or cover if it’s not selling well with advertising. (I changed up my cookbook’s title recently and it’s now selling much better, for example.)

I also do better with non-fiction ads than fiction right now, but it’s hard to say how much of that is because my fiction is not generally written to market and my non-fiction most definitely hits its market.

My AMS ad for my new cozy, the only fiction I have written to market, was in the negative for the first month of launch when I had deliberately high bids but now that I’ve backed those down to something more reasonable it’s mildly profitable in and of itself. So I’d say someone who writes to market in a genre like romance could make a killing with AMS ads still.

Not at 99 cents, of course. Not unless there’s a huge series behind it with good readthrough. You need to earn enough on a sale to pay for your ads and you’re competing with others who do have enough backlist to bid high for ads.

Being in KU has an advantage, too, because there’s a certain percent of people who click on an ad looking for KU titles who won’t buy if you’re not available in KU. But my best-performing ads are all for wide books. (Again, non-fiction, but no reason it couldn’t hold true if you have a fiction title that hits all of the buttons for a large reader group.)

So my bottom line on AMS as of right now? Still well worth it.

(But if others want to hate them and refuse to use them and say nasty things about them every chance they get? So be it. Less people using them means lower potential ad costs means more profit.)

(And I’d add that for those who haven’t read my book or watched the video course that while Amazon has added some bells and whistles to the ads since those were created that the core advice in both is still valid.)

 

Know Your Audience

I was just on Facebook and saw an author mentioning that they’re writing six short stories to serve as an introduction to their main series of novels.

My immediate thought was, that might be a waste of time.

I as a reader am a novel reader. I don’t seek out short stories or novellas. I did recently find myself reading novellas by two authors I like (Kristen Britain and Ilona Andrews) because that’s what they’d released recently and I am constantly starved for more material from what I consider top-tier authors.

They were fine, but if that’s all they ever published again, I’d stop reading them because they wouldn’t be meeting my needs as a reader.

And for a new author? Someone I’ve never read before? I’m not going to buy that 99 cent short story or novella. I won’t even look at it because I’m not a short story or novella reader. Give me a free or 99 cent novel of yours and I might check it out. (Might. I’m weird so rarely buy books on those kinds of sales and still read mostly in print.)

And, yes, there are readers who cross over between stories of all lengths, so writing a short story or novella lead-in to your world might be an effective strategy to bring in a certain percentage of readers. And if you have an opportunity to be in a box set or themed anthology it might make some sense to participate to expand your exposure to new readers.

But, honestly, I would say that if you’re going to commit yourself to writing 50,000 to 100,000 words in a world that you stick to the same general story length and type you’ve already written so that you can pull the readers you attract to one of your titles through your entire series.

As always, YMMV, but something to think about. At the end of the day it all depends on your audience and knowing what they will/will not buy from you.

Hitting Publish

I’m working on the final files for three new titles today and it has me thinking about what it feels like when you’re about to hit publish on a new title. By my count these will be my 136th, 137th, and 138th titles I’ve published.

Now, before you get all impressed with that number a lot of those early titles were short stories and I’ve published collections of other works as well as spun off portions of books into their own series, so on one level that number is not as impressive as it sounds.

But regardless of how long the title is or how much new material it includes the publication stage is always the same for me. There’s a lot of second-guessing. Did I spellcheck? Did I scan through for formatting issues? Am I presenting the information in a way that readers expect and that will work well for them for that format?

And that is, of course, on top of the thoughts about “is this something of value” to my readers? Are they going to get valid information and enough of it out of this non-fiction title? Are they going to enjoy this story or novel? Is what I’m putting out there worth someone paying money for it?

It can be easy to get stuck at this point. Because you don’t want to mess it up. You want to put out a good product that people will like. But I can tell you, no matter how careful you are, no matter how many people look at it, no matter how many times you look at it, things will slip through here or there. Hopefully not big things, but years later you’ll find a paragraph that should be indented here or a missing comma there. It happens.

It annoys me no end every time I later see one of those, but I figure you can’t let pursuit of perfect get in the way of completing a project. In my opinion, perfect isn’t actually possible, so I aim for pretty damned good. (My A- Student Philosophy of Life.)

It works for me. But I’m still going to do one last scan of all these files. Just in case…

Three Years, Four Bookbubs, Finally Profitable

I’ve been fortunate with most of the things I’ve published that they were quickly profitable. But my YA fantasy series has been my constant heartbreak. I sprung for nice covers and paid to launch the first book and then did a free promo on that one when book 3 came out and all the other things you’re supposed to do, but it’s always returned less than all of that cost.

And it wasn’t because the books were bad. In general, the reviews have been good. I’ve received emails from fans about how much they loved it, it got an almost perfect score in the Writer’s Digest contest I entered it in, was a semi-finalist in the SPFBO, and even has a decent review average on Goodreads.

It’s also the only series I have that can get Bookbubs.

With all of that you’d think it would be my most profitable series, right? But no, not at all.

The first book in that series is one of my top five in terms of money grossed and the other two titles in that series are in my top ten, but when you put it all together with the cost of the covers and the cost of advertising, that series has been my worst performing series. The amount I spent on covers and ads has always been more than I earned.

(And that’s only the case with one other “series” of mine. My cookbook which has far too clever a title for its own good.)

Now, the bulk of the expense for the YA fantasy series was the covers. I spent about $2K on those covers, all told. So I had to not only make more from my advertising than I was spending but I had to make enough to cover that $2K in cover costs. Not an easy thing to do.

But I finally did it! It “only” took three years from the publication of book 1 and four Bookbubs (either YA or international-only fantasy so I’ve never gotten the big holy grail U.S. fantasy deal) to make it happen.

It’s not the cover’s fault. I launched book 1 at full price and wide. And I’ve left the books at a higher price point when they’re not in a promotion. (Although that strategy has worked just fine for me with other titles. It just wasn’t a good choice for a YA fantasy series.) I figure when I launch the next series under that name I can always drop the prices on the first series or even permafree book 1 at that point so that there’s somewhere to make that up.

I share this because it’s a good reminder of something I think it’s easy to lose sight of with self-publishing. I expect that this series could sell to new readers for the next twenty years. So if it doesn’t go into the red again due to bad advertising choices, I have twenty years of sales to make a profit on this series. And if I go back to that name and add to those books with another series that’s very likely to boost this first series.

So hope is never lost.

(Although it is hard to keep going when you think you did everything right and it doesn’t work out the way you hoped. That’s probably part of the reason I’ve found it challenging to write another series under that name.)

Anyway. For today I’ll treasure this small victory and remind myself that there’s always hope.

Launching a New Book

I published a novel yesterday. New pen name so new website, etc. And it got me thinking about launches and indie wisdom around book launches.

There’s this almost fanatical belief in indie circles that books start where you launch them and then fall from there. Lots of people are familiar with the idea of the 30 day and 90 day cliffs on Amazon. (The way that works is that basically after 30 days many authors see a sudden and significant drop in sales which gets even worse at 90 days.) A lot of people build their careers around this concept.

This is where the rapid release idea comes from. The reasoning behind it is that you always want to have a book in the 90 day window, if not the 30 day window, because your sales will just crash and burn after that.

If you follow this model you launch at 99 cents, throw as much advertising money as you can at the book early on, and try to get it as high in the rankings as possible and hold there as long as you can. You then switch over to a higher price when the book’s rank starts to drop and hope to make up for all that early ad spend while the book is plummeting back to earth. If you’re lucky, the book gets sticky somewhere up there but never near as high as your highest high.

This model is a bit like a hamster wheel. You have to stay in motion because you have to keep producing books so you’re always in that 90-day window.

It’s a model I don’t do well with. And one I don’t follow. Now, granted, I am not a six-figure author, so keep that in mind. But I am making a living wage at this at this point.

So what model do I follow?

I publish, let people know it’s out there, turn on AMS ads, and see if the book sinks or swims. And by sink or swim I mean, does it earn more from sales than I’m spending on ads? If so, I try to scale those ads. Some books can scale, some can’t.

The books that can scale are the “winners”, the ones that don’t make more than ad spend are the “losers”, and the ones in between are the “forgettable ones”.

Taking this approach means that for a lot of my books I don’t see them hit peak sales for months after release. For example, I published Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel last September. They didn’t peak until March of this year, so six months after release. And, actually, in September of this year they returned to that March level, so they may not have peaked yet. It’s quite possible I will see my best sales income from those titles in a year or two as word of mouth and reputation spread.

And I’m okay with that. Because I’m trying to write “evergreen” books. If I do this right, my fantasy novels should be as readable and appealing to readers five years from today as they are today. Same with my Excel guides.

(You’d think with a guide that’s related to something like Excel that continues to evolve that this wouldn’t be the case, but honestly the basics of Excel have been pretty consistent for twenty years except for the complete change in interface that came with Excel 2007. And even that didn’t change the Ctrl shortcuts or terms that were in use.)

With evergreen books that can still be read years later, you can slowly have word of mouth spread throughout a reading community and bring in sales for you for months or years. Or, like with the Excel guides, if you’re hitting a need you can continue to hit that need for years to come as long as you’re taking steps to make sure new readers know those books exist, like AMS ads.

Now, I will say that one way my approach makes me vulnerable is that, because I don’t seek out reviews early on, if a book does start to do well and doesn’t have a lot of reviews there are people out there who will hit it with a bad review to stop that momentum. I had that happen with one of my romances a few years back. (It was obvious because the review said something that romance readers hate that wasn’t part of the book and it came at a time when that book was climbing the charts.)

So maybe a hybrid launch version is best. Get some early reviews to protect against that sort of thing but then let the book ride on its own momentum.

All I know is that for me doing big launches, which I have tried once or twice, never comes out well. So I far prefer the slow build approach. This is why all of my novels have made more in later years than the year they were launched.

But as with everything, YMMV. Just wanted to share that there can be a different approach and a different sales trajectory.

 

 

A Few Measures of “Success” for a Series

As a writer sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re on the right track. Sometimes it’s obvious. If you have a thousand five-star reviews on a book you can bet that book has found an audience. And if you win awards or see people talking all the time about how wonderful your book is, that’s another one. Obviously, people writing to you and telling you how much they loved your book is also a good sign.

But most books don’t have a thousand reviews, good or bad. And most books aren’t so amazing that they generate buzz. And most readers aren’t going to drop you a line even if they love your book.

So a couple things I look for when it comes to a series of books:

First, I want my top also-boughts to be the rest of the books in that series. The theory is that also-boughts are generated from the list of how many people who have bought Book A have also bought Book B. If your other books aren’t in the top of your also-boughts then that means more people who bought your first book bought someone else’s book rather than your next book in the series.

To me that says that the first book they bought had potential but that it didn’t meet that potential.

This is less true in non-fiction than in fiction, but I do still look for it with my non-fiction titles. Here, for example, are the current also-boughts for Excel for Beginners:

Excel for Beginners Also Boughts 20181029.png

You can see here that there are four other books of mine in the top 7 also-boughts and that the two Excel titles that are in the same series as Excel for Beginners are in the first and second positions.

Even after a big promo I still expect to see this, because I expect people to buy my second in series more then they bought other books promoted on the same day. Here are the also-boughts for Rider’s Revenge in the UK. It had an international Bookbub a couple weeks ago:

Riders Revenge Also Boughts 20181029 in UK.png

A promo might mix up the also-boughts beyond those first few positions, but my books should always hold the top spots.

Second, I want to see that my review average is increasing as the series continues. This is definitely more for fiction series that must be read in order. The theory here is that with book one you’re going to attract readers who are not your reader, especially if you run price promotions that let people sample your work for free or 99 cents.

Those readers might review that first book but then should drop off as the series continues, which means that the people who review the later books in the series are the ones who liked the first books in the series.

If your review average is going down as the series progresses, then you’re somehow not satisfying the readers who did like the first book in the series. Mayeb you gave them the literary equivalent of cotton candy in book one and then offered them mussels in book two. You don’t want to do that. You want to keep the readers you found satisfied.

So, for example, here are the Goodreads ratings for the Rider’s Revenge series.

Goodreads Review Average RR Series 20181029

You’ll see that there are fewer reviews as the series continues, but that the review average went up as the books continued (from 3.75 to 3.94 to 4.25). If instead book 3’s review average was a 3.25, I would known that I’d failed to end the trilogy in a way that satisfied the readers who had stuck with the series to the end.

Now, granted, it’s not a perfect way to measure if you’re doing well with a series. (I actually consider the Rider’s series to have been a bit of a commercial failure. It took until just now to breakeven.) But it is one way to judge a series performance.

And it can tell you other things about your writing.

So, for example, my contemporary romance pen name has two novels and a novella. If I look at the also-boughts for each of the novels the other novel is in that #1 slot, but the novella is not in the #2 slot. It’s in the top 5 of the also-boughts for each novel, so it’s up there, but not right at the top. That’s because not all novel readers are novella readers and so that difference in story type means lower sell-through to the novella.

It’s also not the same characters, which could be another part of it.

That tells me that for that name I’m better off writing another novel than a novella. And perhaps staying in the same story world.

So if you’re seeing that your other works aren’t in the top of your also-boughts, ask yourself why. If it’s a related series, then you’re not hooking readers into continuing somehow. If you’re writing standalone works then it could be a different length or different type of story issue. Figuring out the cause and fixing it can make a significant difference in how well you do going forward.

Just something to think about…

(And note that I chose examples where this was actually the case as opposed to the ones for my books where it isn’t. Trust me, I have ones where this isn’t the case.)